Friday, June 22, 2018

Arbeit Macht Klug!

I am disconcerted by the Trump Maladministration's proposal to merge the Department of Labor and the Department of Education. On one level, it seems like another stupid Republican 'drown government in a bathtub' downsizing plan. Given the rise of children's internment camps throughout the country, such a merger takes on a more sinister edge- would merging Education and Labor pave the way for schools becoming child labor facilities? Just imagine, Ivanka Trump could put those tiny child hands to work making her crappy merchandise.

I am snarking here, but some of the children have apparently been whisked off by a DeVos funded 'charity', and I wouldn't put it past her to make them pack Amway products while charging the US taxpayers thousands of dollars per child to 'care' for children separated from their parents.

ADDENDUM: This makes my blood boil!

Thursday, June 21, 2018

Death of a Cat Lover

Just about a year after the death of a beloved feline companion comes the sad news that a beloved celebrity cat lover has died. Like many people around the world, I am saddened by the death of Koko the lowland gorilla at the age of 46. There were controversies regarding Koko's handling and her actual linguistic ability, but her attraction to cats won her the love of millions, including myself. Traditionally, I had always been skeptical regarding the anthropomorphizing of animals, but if Frans De Waal says it's okay to some extent, I think I can lighten up.

At any rate, I am sad to see this remarkable gorilla leave us, she brought a sense of wonder to an all too cynical world. I can think of no better tribute to her than to cherish a feline companion. It's what Koko would do.

Tuesday, June 19, 2018

Secret Science Club Post-Lecture Recap: Astrobiology and the Anthropocene

Last night, I headed down to the beautiful Bell House, in the Gowanus section of Brooklyn, for this month's Secret Science Club lecture featuring astrophysicist Dr Adam Frank of the University of Rochester. Dr Frank is the host of NPR's 13.7: Cosmos And Culture and has recently released a book, Light of the Stars: Alien Worlds and the Fate of the Earth.

Dr Frank's talk riffed on the topic of the book- the research behind it came out of being a science writer who specializes in outreach. In the book, he wanted to address climate change denialism. An astronomer looks at what happens to planets undergoing climate change differently than a typical climate scientist. Regarding climate change, the problem can't be solved unless it is understood, and it can't be understood unless its story can be told. Anthropogenic climate change being a recent phenomenon, there is no broad story about it. The story that must be pieced together is: what is the human future on a climate-changing planet? Currently, there is an anthropogenically driven change in the planetary climate state from 'warm and moist' to an unknown state. Climate change will be accompanied by resource depletion, most dangerously, a depletion of potable water.

The effects of increasing carbon dioxide levels has been a source of concern since at least the 1960s, with President Johnson making this declaration in a special message to Congress in 1965:

"Air pollution is no longer confined to isolated places. This generation has altered the composition of the atmosphere on a global scale through radioactive materials and a steady increase in carbon dioxide from the burning of fossil fuels. Entire regional airsheds, crop plant environments, and river basins are heavy with noxious materials. Motor vehicles and home heating plants, municipal dumps and factories continually hurl pollutants into the air we breathe. Each day almost 50,000 tons of unpleasant, and sometimes poisonous, sulfur dioxide are added to the atmosphere, and our automobiles produce almost 300,000 tons of other pollutants. "

Currently, climate change denialism is another aspect of our political polarization.

In 2000 publication, Paul Crutzen and Eugene Stoermer coined the term Anthropocene (PDF) to describe the current geological epoch in which human activity is a fundamental driver of coupled Earth systems. Humans are altering the planet to the extent that researchers a million or two years in the future could be able to detect isotopic evidence of human activity. Humanity is pushing the levers on climate, biodiversity, the nitrogen cycle, and the phosphorous cycle. In 2009, Johan Rockström of the Stockholm Resilience Centre led an effort to describe the planetary boundaries within which humanity could thrive and to foster stability. Dr Frank described the Anthropocene with a wonderful turn of phrase: We have reached a mythic power regarding planetary change.

Dr Frank characterized his fusion of astrobiology and the Anthropocene as the 10,000 light-year view. Astrobiology is the study of life in an astronomical perspective. The difficulty in astrobiological studies is that it involves an N=1 problem because we only know of one life-bearing world. That being said, there were three revolutions in the field: the first being the discovery of exoplanets, the second being the exploration of the solar system, and the third being an exploration of Earth's distant past.

The existence of life on other planets has occupied the human imagination for millennia, with optimists and pessimists vying for public acceptance. Epicurus believed that extraterrestrial life was common while Aristotle believed that Earth is unique. Newton believed in extraterrestrial life, but by 1900, pessimism regarding life beyond Earth was ascendant. In 1995, NASA's Kepler Space Telescope detected the first concrete evidence of an exoplanet. Since then, planets have been found wholesale- almost every star has planets orbiting it, with one in five stars having planets in the Habitable Zone- that region around a star in which liquid water can exist.

The exploration of the solar system has proceeded apace, with all sorts of objects (planets, asteroids, comets) being visited. Climate is the generic status of all planets with an atmosphere, and climate models exist for the other planets of the solar system (PDF). Climate is a universal planetary phenomenon. Mars used to be a blue world, with a vast amount of liquid water. Dr Frank described its current state as hellish, a cold and nasty place, and joked 'bring your blanket!' He then noted that you can change your planet, it might not be the one you grew up on.

Dr Frank then showed us an image of various planets and asked us to identify them- they all turned out to be artists' conceptions of the stages of Earth's development, much like depicted in this gorgeous painting. At one stage, the Earth was molten. At another stage, before the formation of continents, the only landmasses were cratons. At another stage, it is believed that there was a Snowball Earth. During the Paleocene-Eocene Thermal Maximum, it is believed that Earth had no sea or land ice. Dr Frank quipped that the Earth has worn many masks.

The study of the Earth's past involves the study of many Earth systems: the co-evolution of the atmosphere, cryosphere, hydrosphere, geosphere, and biosphere. The Holocene, the geological epoch which encompasses our current Anthropocene, is one of many interglacial periods. AlL of human history has taken place in this epoch, approximately the last 10,000 years. Dr Frank posed the question, what would you experience if you landed on Earth three billion years ago? The answer is that you would asphyxiate because of a lack of oxygen in the atmosphere. The presence of free oxygen in the atmosphere is due to life- the Great Oxidation Event occurred when cyanobacteria 'farted out' oxygen as a waste product of photosynthesis. Life has changed the atmosphere over and over again. Successful species are numerous, but such success can lead to catastrophes- the cyanobacteria changed the atmosphere enough that it killed most of them off.

In 1979, James Lovelock and Lynn Margulis formulated the Gaia Hypothesis, the idea that the planet changes to maintain life. The hypothesis was controversial due to the notion of a teleological planet, a planet that 'wants' life, even though evolution is a blind processs. The idea of a 'living' planet led to some loopy interpretations in the public imagination, which led to some pushback, but it is undeniable that life plays an enormous role in Earth's systems dynamics. Earth and its life have been evolving together as a coupled system for a long time.

Dr Frank's research involves the study of astrobiological systems to determine if sustainable versions of our type of civilization are possible. Do industrialized civilizations like ours burn out in two hundred years? Astrobiological studies can inform us of new perspectives on our trajectory into and through the Anthropocene. How common are 'anthropocenes'? How fatal are 'anthropocenes'? What is the average lifespan of an industrial civilization? What are the characteristics of planets that survive an 'anthropocene'? Dr Frank urged us to take the prospect of exocivilizations seriously.

At this time, I will leave off the recap for now because bar trivia beckons- what good is learning while intoxicated if one cannot follow it up with showing off intellectually while intoxicated? I will finish this recap tomorrow...

By which I mean today!

Different stars have different characteristics. A star with a different spectrum from our sun would mean that photosynthesis on a planet orbiting it would differ from terrestrial photosynthesis. There are no tools in the toolbox to constrain our models focusing on the co-evolution of civilization and planetary systems. One definition of civilization involves the use of energy by intelligent lifeforms. A problem with studying astrobiology is the bad prosthetic forehead variety of science fiction- aliens provide a snicker factor. The search for extraterrestrial intelligence can be refined, as Dr Frank put it, "This is not your grandfather's SETI." Mentioning the excitement over the discovery of a possible extrasolarian megastructure, he exhorted us: "Consider the possibilities!" Within the next thirty years, we may have data relevant to the possibility of extraterrestrial life. For example, atmospheric signatures of industrial civilization include methane and CFCs.

The theoretical studies of exocivilizations involve a battle between optimists and pessimists. Astronomer Frank Drake formulated the Drake Equation, a theoretical exercise to estimate the possible number of detectable extrasolar civilizations, expressed as:

N is the number of detectable civilizations. R* is the average rate of star formation. Fp is the number of stars with planets. Ne is the number of those stars which have planets which can sustain life. Fl is the number of those planets on which life develops. Fi is the number of those planets which develop intelligent life which can produce civilizations. Fc is the number of those civilizations which have developed detectable communications technologies. L is the duration of time in which those civilizations release detectable signals.

Dr Frank posed the question: What sub-questions in the Drake Equation can be answered? Are we the only instance in cosmic evolution that intelligent life evolved? This ultra-pessimistic view would be a one in ten billion trillion chance. Even a pessimist like Ernst Mayr was ten million times more optimistic than that. Most pessimists would get a universe full of civilizations of two hundred years' duration.

Building world civilizations involves planetary feedback- 'anthropocenes' have probably happened before. We now know enough about planets and how they respond to to anthropocenes to begin how species will drive planetary feedback. Science is about constraining imagination, and the astrobiological/archaeological models are based on the predator/prey population models formulated by Lotka and Volterra:

Predator numbers tend to go up after the amount of prey increases, and crash after the prey numbers crash. Dr Frank used similar equations for population and planetary temperatures- he quipped that planets are machines, push hard enough and they go off. The models used for the equations were based on the population of Easter Island, as detailed in his May 2018 article in The Atlantic. Running multiple scenarios, he determined that there are three main results. The first is a mass die off as population exceeds the planet's carrying capacity. The second is the achievement of sustainability- a soft landing to a steady state is reached. The last is a true collapse, perhaps a runaway Venus scenario.

Dr Frank posed the question, what does the astrobiological perspective change? He joked that he is from New Jersey, so he is naturally combative, then noted that this is not a battle to save the planet- as Lynn Margulis joked: "Gaia is a tough bitch." The planet has been the scene of five known mass extinctions, and the only reason why we are here is because the non-avian dinosaurs went extinct, leaving ecological niches for our ancestors. What are we trying to sustain? What moral imperatives do we invoke to do so? Dr Frank showed the picture of the polar bear stranded on a melting ice flow and noted that it is an apex predator that would easily kill you. He then stated that humans can no longer practice ecological hooliganism. Even if humans are successful in reaching sustainability, there will be no more ice ages. Climate change poses a probably existential threat to the project of civilization, but Earth will survive even if we do not. Ecologically, the Earth's phytoplankton is more important than the charismatic megafauna usually invoked in ecological pleas.

Dr Frank urged activists to stop with the human hate- the goal should be to sustain the climatic conditions that are amenable to the project of civilization. Sustainability goals should balance a technologically advanced, energy intensive, high population with quality of life. 'Hockey Stick' diagrams won't change the narrative, stories are needed and the wrong story is 'we suck'. Cities are ecosystems just like forests, they have just been invented recently. The wrong question to ask is 'did we change climate?' The right question is 'what did we expect?' When oil was discovered, humans did not set out to change the climate, it was a mistake resulting from one particular sort of energy production. Our mistake now is to keep using fossil fuels. Climate scientist Raymond Pierrehumbert characterized climate change as 'Humanity's Final Exam'. Through right action and skillful means, we might just pass it. If we acknowledge that planets have rules, and achieve sustainability, we might create an 'awakened' planet on which the biosphere and civilization can flourish together, and the Gaia hypothesis can be realized.

The lecture was followed by a Q&A session. The first question involved mass extinctions, and Dr Frank noted that the biosphere would be happy to move on without us, and the burden falls on us to 'think like the biosphere' to benefit ourselves. Some bastard in the audience asked the good doctor for his opinion on the theoretical notion that a planet had 'one shot' to produce a high-tech civilization, because a failing civilization would 'spend all the startup capital' and impoverish any successors. Happily, Dr Frank's colleague Gavin Schmidt posed a speculative scenario in which a high tech civilization evolved millions of years before humanity. What sort of evidence would survive, say, thirty-five million years? Could climate change end one civilization and set up the cycle of fossil fuel production for the next civilization? Would a wind powered civilization be possible? What does a planet provide? What would our footprint be millions of years from now? It would be weird isotopic anomalies.

Regarding Mars, it is not Planet B. There is no way to move a mass of population and enough resources to sustain them to the red planet. Dr Frank then joked that we should 'fuck up' Mars- as we are triggering climate change, we are becoming spacefarers, and the price for climate change is the rest of the solar system.

Regarding the lifespan of technological civilizations, Dr Frank joked that, two hundred years ago, anyone traveling more than thirty miles per hour would be falling to their death.

Regarding the Fermi Paradox, Dr Frank noted that SETI funding has been slim, and that, if space were an ocean, we have only looked at at thimble. If there were aliens which could travel at approximately the speed of light, they could have disseminated throughout the galaxy in six thousand years, but if they had visited Earth, any traces would have been lost, so researchers should (shades of Arthur C. Clarke) look on the moon. I have my own theory about the Fermi Paradox.

Asked for the most effective story about climate change, Dr Frank opined that climate change shows us how powerful we are. He advised us not to bother talking to hardcore climate denialists, and noted that carbon dioxide doesn't care who you vote for.

Regarding Easter Island models, he noted that in most cases the population of the island exceeds its carrying capacity... sustainability is almost impossible. Carrying capacity studies for the planet use real climate models, with the parameters being based on energy sources. Even using wind power as a parameter, a two-degree change is expected. He noted that doctors don't only study sick people, and that many models are needed.

Asked about what technologies are needed, Dr Frank noted that we must get off fossil fuels and develop renewables. He noted that, near his Rochester campus, there are four bits of transportation infrastructure: the Erie Canal, a railroad, a highway, and an airport. Infrastructure changes, technologies change.

Dr Frank delivered a really great lecture- while much of it was speculative, it was a valuable intellectual exercise, and a call to action. I particularly dug the almost Lovecraftian evocation of vast periods of time, unburdened by Lovecraftian cosmic indifference and other less pleasant baggage. This was a superfun think piece. Kudos to Dr Frank, Dorian and Margaret, and the staff of the beautiful Bell House. Here is a video of Dr Frank discussing his new book:

Pour yourself a libation and soak in that SCIENCE!

ADDENDUM: Here is a short, sweet video featuring Dr Frank:

Now, that's a quick shot of SCIENCE!

Monday, June 18, 2018

After Yesterday's Rant, Something Lovely

In the wee hours of the morning, while listening to my favorite college radio station, I heard a lovely song by Melody's Echo Chamber, fronted by French singer-songwriter Melody Prochet, who is recovering from a traumatic accident. The whimsical video for Breathe In, Breathe Out looks to me as if it were inspired by Moebius' artworks:

I like to think that the action depicted in the video takes place in a more verdant, gentler part of the same planet on which this video takes place.

I must say, though, that French musicians seem to have a lock on really cool animated song videos.

Sunday, June 17, 2018

For Fathers' Day, a Meditation on Masculinity

First of all, here's wishing a happy Fathers' Day to all of the dads out there. Have an excellent day and be excellent. Masculinity has been a hot topic in the news these days, with a 'crisis of masculinity' being cited for, among other things, a recent spate of mass shootings by men. The so-called Men's Rights Movement, while citing dubious statistics about how men have it worse than women, elide the fact that men are the cause of most men's problems... Murdered? Imprisoned? Sent to die in a war? Yeah, the responsible party or parties was probably another man. Also, for so-called rights advocates, these guys never seem to want to solve the men's problems that they complain about before they get down to their primary business, which is bashing women.

Toxic masculinity usually involves racism as well as sexism, and a lot of the rage felt by angry young men (the sort of 4chan/incel types who use 'cuck' as an insult) is inspired by racialized sexual fears, or sexualized racial fears- the apotheosis of this rage taking place three years ago to the day.

The 'crisis of masculinity' narrative has spawned its own snake-oil industry populated by grifters who, oddly enough, all seem to have the sort of high-pitched voices that don't exactly scream 'smoldering volcano of testosterone'. Most of them seem to have self-help books in which they, like Sgt Rock, promise to help their young marks win their own small battle of the sexes. My favorite moment in this cottage industry is lampooned by Sam Seder in this video:

They money quote is the one in which this boob finds a slippery slope between snowball fights being forbidden by schools (seems the dumbass hasn't heard of liability lawsuits) and the ravishment of your daughters by wild boys:

Increasingly, among my students, I see young men who don’t know how to be good men. My son wasn’t allowed to throw a snowball, for example, in elementary school. It was against the rules for him to even pick up snow off the ground. It is in that manner that decent boys are made to feel guilty about their masculine impulses. So, they withdraw, confused. The more aggressive, psychopathic boys? They simply don’t care. So they’ll be the ones fathering your grandchildren, in the future – if tomorrow’s woman can find a man to sleep with at all. That’ll keep the testosterone flowing

I am hearing it, the poetry of Mu
! Canadian loon actually believes that women want to be involved with men who abuse them, which makes me suspect that his contact with women tends to be limited. The problem with toxic masculinity isn't the masculinity, it's the toxicity.

Friday, June 15, 2018

Cumbia Crash Course

I have a busy day tomorrow... I am in the middle of a double overnight shift, and will be working until 8AM. My upstairs neighbor will be taking her two kids to an all-day Gaelic Games tournament- she constantly has her kids enrolled in activities of various sorts, and they are nice, responsible kids. While she and the kids are away, she wants me to let their dog, a wee terrier mix, out so he can take a pee outside. Then, I will be driving to Peekskill, New York for the 12:30PM christening of the twin babies of Maria, who is one of the weekend cleaning contractors at my workplace.

The post-christening party will start at 7:30 PM, also in Peekskill. I will have to head home to Yonkers to rest up a bit, and will let the neighbors' dog out again for a pee break, then head back to Peeksill for the party. Maria, who is from Ecuador, warned me that I will be expected to dance to cumbia:

Tonight, I will be studying the dance steps, sort of a crash course in cumbia. Luckily, I am pretty skilled when it comes to cutting a rug. One of Kovacevic sensei's favorite quotes was one attributed to various sources, most commonly Confucius: "Never give a sword to a man who cannot dance." Of course, I'm not a fencer, but I am known to be a dancer.

Thursday, June 14, 2018

Damo Suzuki Steered Me Wrong!

It's that glorious time of the year when the maternally-inclined snapping turtles in the vicinity leave their various watery homes in order to lay their eggs. While doing the workday walkabout, I saw this beauty returning to our onsite pond after laying her clutch of eggs:

At one point, I contemplated the feasibility to stick my foot next to this turtle in order to show a size comparison, but I thought better of it because I like my toes, as unlovely as they are. As it is, I would estimate the length of her carapace as approximately fourteen inches, and she looked like she clocked in at thirty pounds. I watched her stroll to the pond, even recording a video which I can't embed... nuts to you, Blogger!

Because snapping turtles have small plastrons, they walk with their hind legs directly underneath their bodies, while their front legs display that typical 'reptilian' sprawl. At any rate, when Damo Suzuki sang my favorite Can song, he didn't have Chelydra serpentina in mind:

I've been looking for an excuse to post this delightful bit of nonsense, because it's been an earworm for me since I heard it on college radio a couple of months ago.

Wednesday, June 13, 2018

Procrastination Is Unscientific!

Grrr, I am one mad bastard, mad at myself for failing to buy a ticket for tonight’s Secret Science Club North lecture. I logged on to the Symphony Space website last night and there were tickets available, then went out for bar trivia before buying... I mean, what are the odds that someone would buy a ticket overnight. Today, I logged in to buy a ticket and saw the dreaded words: SOLD OUT. Cue the sad trombone sound.

I apologize to Margaret and Dorian, to my readers, and most of all myself. It’s been a busy month, but I should have taken care of purchasing a ticket well in advance.

Tuesday, June 12, 2018


Tonight is the retirement party for one of our managers on the job. We are having a potluck, so I spent yesterday grinding fava beans and chickpeas in order to make falafel from scratch. I was taught how to make it by a Coptic woman who lived downstairs from me years ago. Today was spent in the kitchen, frying the falafel and making tahini sauce from scratch. I figured I would bring something vegan, in case anybody on the job has dietary restrictions, self-imposed or not.

The coworker who is retiring has been with us about eight years, he rose through the ranks to his management position, like myself. I will miss him, though I occasionally run into him at the 238th St/Broadway subway station. Hopefully, this will happen more frequently when he's retired.

Monday, June 11, 2018

Imagining their Meeting

Just dashing off a quick post between errands (I’ve been in the kitchen all day, preparing for a potluck at work tomorrow). The big pending news story is the summit in Singapore between Trump and Kim. I have a suspicion that they will spend their one on one meeting as a mutual gripe fest about their overbearing fathers.

Sunday, June 10, 2018

PR: Pride, Resistance

Today is National Puerto Rican Pride Day, and the streets of Manhattan will play host to an estimated two million attendees. I occasionally post about Puerto Rican matters- in the course of working in the South Bronx for fifteen years, off and on (I was a rover, having assignments all over the NYC metro area), I developed an appreciation for Puerto Rican culture. My friends and co-workers, solid working and middle class people who came from humble origins, embraced me and taught me about their music, their food, their solid family values. I was introduced to the music of Eddie Palmieri and reveled in the Puerto Rican Traveling Theater's annual performance of scenes from my beloved Don Quixote. Working Sunday mornings with a solid mountain-born boricua, I ate so much mondongo that another co-worker was convinced that the two of us were 'a couple of drunks'. Puerto Ricans, and the diaspora Nuyoricans, are an integral part of the metro area's fabric- they tend to work as civil servants: police, firefighters, health care professionals, teachers.

This year, though, in the wake of the revelation (no surprise) that almost five thousand people died as a result of Hurricane Maria, the parade takes on a new urgency. This year, the parade will not only be about pride, but about resistance. The Puerto Rican people were abandoned by the federal government, led by a chief executive and a coterie of advisors who have an antipathy for people of color, especially people de la herencia latina. Last month, a Republican candidate opined that Puerto Ricans who settled in Florida in the aftermath of Maria should not be allowed to vote. As a mental exercise, could you imagine a political candidate suggesting that New Jerseyans resettling in Pennsylvania after Sandy should not be able to vote? Actually, PA being a swing state, don't answer that... Not only are Puerto Ricans US citizens, but Puerto Ricans have a tradition of service in the US armed forces. I find it shameful that such loyal Americans have gotten such a raw deal in their hour of greatest need, but I have hope that they will be a major force in reclaiming the government of the nation. Yo tengo fey en la alma de mis amigos puertorriqueños, y esta fey me da esperanza.

This being a post about Puerto Rico, I can't finish off without posting some good salsa, so here is Puerto Rico by Frankie Ruiz:

Al fin, recuerdan que no son olvidados.

Saturday, June 9, 2018

And the Summit Will Feel Like a G6

Well, it looks like Trump is messing up at the G7 summit, with his talk of imposing tariffs and his sermon that Russia, which has a smaller economy than Texas should be reinstated after being kicked out of the G8 for annexing the Crimea. At any rate, Trump is alienating key US allies with his insults, and confusing them by reversing his rhetoric by later claiming that eliminating all tariffs should be considered. This volatility, or mendacity, is what makes dealing with a dotard so dangerous. With Trump isolating the US from its closest allies, this summit has been described as G6+1, which reminds me of a catchy but rather silly song from about a decade ago:

Tweeting insults from the bowl like a dummy
Donnie got no poker game, just rummy.
D00ds that have to act like this got wee dicks,
And the summit will feel like a G6.

I don't think that next week's summit with North Korea will go any better, I just dread what song it may remind me of...

Friday, June 8, 2018

Adieu, Anthony

Like the vast majority of people who love to cook and to eat, I was shocked and saddened by the death of Anthony Bourdain. Bourdain could be prickly at times, but he was refreshingly candid, unfailingly honest, and devoted to the idea that humanity could be brought together through mutual understanding, obtained over a good meal and a frank conversation.

Back when my older brother, Sweetums, was planning his wedding, we decided to kick off his bachelor party at Anthony Bourdain's Brasserie Les Halles on Park Avenue South- the perfect place for a hanger steak with some pommes frites, and an even better place for boudin noir.

Of course, it was Bourdain's Kitchen Confidential which really put him in the public eye. As someone who worked in the local deli throughout high school and college, I enjoyed this unvarnished look at the commercial kitchen- while my kitchen experience lacked the frenetic pace of the restaurant industry, cooking and peeling twenty pounds of potatoes a week and washing a sinkload of steam table trays every day was quite the education. Bourdain's book rang true, especially when it described the economizing measures that cooks use to make sure that the profit margins, always razor thin, aren't obliterated by waste. My equivalent of 'don't order fish on Mondays' is 'bread pudding is on the menu so the day old bread can be sold at a good price'... for the record, I like bread pudding. Also for the record, when the stale bread not used for bread pudding gets as hard as a rock, it gets thrown in a blender and ground into crumbs used to make meatballs/meatloaf and to coat cutlets.

Kitchen Confidential
got Bourdain out of the kitchen and onto television screens, where he played the globetrotting bon vivant, sorta like James Bond without the violence. In this role, he was an educator, an ambassador- he exhorted people to get outside of their comfort zones, and to trust the locals:

The observation that the street food is safer than the fancy hotel buffet food was echoed by parasitologist and GOOD GUY Mark Siddall- the stuff in the hotel steam tables has probably been sitting around for hours...

Bourdain was also a tireless champion of the Latin American immigrants who form the backbone of the food service industry.

One of my favorite Bourdain moments was his foray into my beloved Bronx, where he went to eat cuchifritos:

Watching that clip has me craving some morcilla, though I have to confess that my favorite cuchifritos place in the city is the place on 116th St right by the 6 Train stop.

Anyway, the man is dead, and his fans, including myself, feel the loss. Here's an old interview, unfortunately conducted by a total b00b, in which Anthony describes what his ideal last meal would be:

I admire his patience with such a dull-witted individual... For a sharp-witted individual's take, Tengrain posted heartfelt tributes to Anthony Bourdain, advising us that the best tribute to the man's life is to eat and drink with friends. It's the least we can do to memorialize this chef, diner, globe-trotter, humanist, and educator.

Thursday, June 7, 2018

Mars' Carbon Footprint

Here's a bit of news that I find very exciting- NASA's Mars Curiosity Rover detected carbon-based molecules in sedimentary rocks on Mars and seasonal methane variations in the Martian atmosphere. While this doesn't mean that NASA discovered life on Mars, it does mean that, at least at one time, life was possible on Mars. With the discovery of these tantalizing hints that life may have existed on Mars, the Mars 2020 Rover mission takes on a renewed urgency.

I periodically blog about Mars- in fact, Mars came up as a subject of last month's Secret Science Club lecture. I feel that humanity eventually needs to get it's ass together and colonize other planets, or put succinctly:

Learning more about the red planet is crucial for humanity's long-term goals, especially in light of stupid geopolitical events, which are increasingly looking like an explanation for the Fermi Paradox.

Wednesday, June 6, 2018

Recipe for Ratfucking

I've been scratching my glabrous pate lately about the 'jungle primaries' that took place in California, that bizarre 'top two' system that makes one-party elections possible. Everything fell into place for me when I learned that the system was pushed for by then governor Arnold Schwarzenegger- on the face of it, the system sounds like serious Republican ratfucking:

“We want to change the dysfunctional political system and we want to get rid of the paralysis and the partisan bickering,” then-Gov. Arnold Schwarzenegger, who championed the electoral reform into reality, said in celebrating its approval by California’s voters in 2010. “Those are huge changes that will change everything in the future.”

The reason why he wanted to get rid of partisan bickering is because, in California, the Republican party has slipped to 'third party' status- partisan politics is deadly to a rump party.

The 'top two' primary system can be manipulated by unscrupulous Republicans running fake Democrats or fomenting internecine Democratic squabbling in order to split votes. The whole damn thing is a mess.

For a reliably progressive state, California sure has some insane state laws... I'm looking at YOU, Prop 13! Luckily, the two tier primary system didn't adversely affect the electoral prospects for Democrats this year, but things could have gone differently, as intended by the architects of this bullshit legislation.

Tuesday, June 5, 2018

Somebody, Please, Think of the Wankers!

Seems like a lot of people, by which I mean d00dz, are upset that the Miss America pageant is dumping the swimsuit competition.

It’s getting so a guy can’t even catch a glimpse of ankle these days, so it’s no wonder that guys are in a tizzy. As if that weren’t bad enough, this is a harbinger of a slippery slope... next thing you know, Penthouse Magazine is going to feature architectural photos in the centerfold.

Monday, June 4, 2018

Pushing the Bounds of Acceptable Discourse

I’ve been grappling all day with Trump’s morning tweet about how, as president, he could pardon himself. On the face of it, it’s a ludicrous assertion. While Trump is not an intelligent man, he is a man of low cunning (to crib a joke from an old Life in Hell panel, he is “stupid like pig but cunning like serpent”)... there is a very good reason for this ridiculous statement.

Trump is floating a trial balloon, by which I mean a pre-trial balloon: by introducing the bizarre notion that he can pardon himself, he is pushing the boundaries of acceptable discourse. He, his minions, and the corporate propaganda outlets that back him will repeat the notion in order to normalize a previously unthinkable position. Given the piss-poor performance of the mainstream media in holding Trump accountable for his atrocities and the complicity of the Republican Congress, this strategy just might work.

Sunday, June 3, 2018

With Boredom Comes Mischief

It's a quiet night on the job, the weather is foul outside, so I had some time for some mischief... idle hands and all that. Poking around the t00bz, I ran into Vic Berger's photoshop of Trump and wondered why nobody had made an animated GIF using it. Dicking around with GIMP and an online GIF maker, then adding a soundtrack, I came up with this:

I'm surprised I haven't run into this before... after all, even the guy's fans picture him as a frog.

Hat tip to Smut, he's a master of the animated GIF.

Feel free to share, even to improve if your photomanipulation skills are better than mine, which they are.

Saturday, June 2, 2018

Walking With and Without Ginger

Yesterday, I arrived at work shortly before 5PM, and my initial task was to help the tail end of the day shift lock up the joint after the tourists left. Oddly enough, everybody was out shortly after 5, rather than the usual 5:30 weekday exodus. After everybody left, I decided I'd spend some quality time with my beloved Ginger. I had to do an inspection tour of the site, and Ginger usually trots along behind me as I make sure everything is ship-shape.

About halfway through my walkabout, Ginger decided to plop herself down on a convenient perch. I suspect that she was reluctant to follow me through a section of the property occupied by about twenty or thirty geese. Most of the geese onsite are overly tame, but Ginger, being small and a predator, would probably have faced a gauntlet of angry birds. I perambulated the property and at one of the distant corners, I ran into a critter which probably would have been scared off by Ginger:

It was a relief not to have to deal with death and dismemberment, though this cottontail was probably big enough to challenge my feline associate.

I walked back the way I had come, through the gauntlet of geese, and reconnected with my precious kitty:

What a precious, precious kitty! It being a muggy day, I decided to groom Ginger a bit, merely using my fingers to comb some excess fur off of her muscular form. Ginger is one of those easily distracted cats, she typically never sat still long enough to brush, but I learned my lesson, and decided to apply operant conditioning. If you want the cat to behave in a particular manner, reward that behavior... a handful of kibble, a small mountain of fur, and Ginger was as pretty as a picture.

Friday, June 1, 2018

The Traditional June First Post

As is typical, I take time out on the first day of June to extend birthday greetings to my super snarky sister. As Irish twins, in our childhood we were impossible to be around for the days we were the same age, and the family basically resigned itself to constant bickering until my birthday rolled around and I 'lapped' her agewise, so to speak.

Things have mellowed considerably, and there is no bickering between us at this time of year. She's been particularly busy lately, having gone to Berkeley for her oldest son's graduation. She is now playing host to three of his college buddies who road-tripped east with the lad (two of them had never been to the east coast) and are now staying in the DC metro area for a few days. To make things even more hectic, my nephew's girlfriend is coming to DC for a summer internship, so the house will be pretty crowded for a while. We were raised in the tradition of hospitality, so she is continuing the family practice of amassing an extended family. It's what we do... we nerd out and we take in additional 'relatives'. I have no doubt that my sister's birthday party this year will last all weekend-long.

Thursday, May 31, 2018

When You've Lost Canada

I am one of those 'Murricans who has an appreciation for Canada and its people. While it's been a long time since I have visited our neighbor to the north, I do maintain a blogroll which conforms to Canadian content regulations. I acknowledge that Canadians are our best friends, our most steadfast trade partners, our Clamato-swilling Continental siblings... and now our moron president is starting a trade war with them, as well as our Mexican and European Union allies. With the imposition of tariffs, the Canadians are responding in kind. What kind of idiot blows it with Canada? As if that weren't bad enough, the Dow took a pretty big hit because of this idiocy. I don't even want to contemplate my 401k these days.

As if things weren't insane enough, there's a report claiming that Trump wants to ban all imports of German luxury cars. I can't imagine that such a policy would go over well with the GOP plutocrat donor base- what good is making multiple millions of dollars if you can't ride around in a Maybach?

Wednesday, May 30, 2018

Reminded by Memorial Day

This past Memorial Day, at a ceremony at the Intrepid Sea, Air, and Space Museum, a wreath was laid by 102 year old veteran Richard Cole, the last surviving member of the Doolittle Raid, a daring April 1942 long-range bombing run over the main Japanese island of Honshu. The mission was a one-way flight over Japan due to the difficulty of landing the B-25 Mitchell bombers on the aircraft carriers from which they took off.

Me being me, I immediately thought of the haunting Pere Ubu song 30 Seconds Over Tokyo, inspired by the book and movie of the same name. The song, a particular favorite of mine, gives me goosebumps. Here is a 2013 live rendition:

If you can't distinguish the lyrics, the album version is more intelligible.

Thankfully, we of the US are friends and allies of the Japanese people, to the extent that an attack on Tokyo is one of our greatest fears when it comes to international policy.

Monday, May 28, 2018

Obligatory Annual Memorial Day Post

As is typical, I post on Memorial Day about the now-surreal nature of the holiday. Memorial Day originated in the aftermath of the Civil War as a day to decorate the graves of fallen soldiers. While there are multiple origin stories surrounding the holiday, some credit is due to African Americans in Charleston who buried the bodies of Union Soldiers in a ceremony in 1865. It is strange to me that this holiday is now celebrated mainly by going to the beach or drinking a lot on Sunday night and nursing a hangover. I can't fault people for this, though- Americans get few days off as it is, so people maximize their recreational time by enjoying a late-Spring day in the manner in which they choose. Perhaps the official Memorial Day should be moved to a less gorgeous time of year.

This Memorial Day, though, has been marred for some people in South Illinois by a creep who spray-painted hundreds of graves with swastikas. These acts of vandalism are particularly vile considering the timing. Illinois Nazis are the worst.

Sunday, May 27, 2018

The Flight of the Girls

The Irish are a diaspora people... for centuries, they have fled war, famine, poverty, and oppression, both foreign and domestic. They have faced exile and penal transportation. My dad's mom's parents were members of the diaspora- fleeing poverty in the early twentieth century (my great-grandfather had planned to emigrate to Australia, but while he was in San Francisco waiting to embark, the earthquake hit and he, a stonemason, was pressed into service rebuilding the city, actually living in a labor camp but receiving a decent wage, and decided to go back to New York, where he met my great-grandmother). I live in a neighborhood with a large Irish immigrant community, and every summer, we get an influx of young people from Ireland looking to work in construction or the restaurant/bar industry. My upstairs neighbor is an Irish gal raising two wonderful Yankee kids, and my next-door neighbors are Irish. Going to the bank, I overhear guys in paint-spattered pants asking how the craic is. I go to the local butcher to get house-made black pudding. The diaspora continues, though now there is more of a back-and-forth.

One of the watershed moments of the Irish diaspora was the Flight of the Earls, which saw the earls of Tyrone and Tyrconnell leaving Ulster to seek help from the Spanish government in an attempt to throw off British sovereignty. The Flight of the Earls looms large in Irish folk history.

This weekend, though, saw a return of the diaspora population as many Irish abroad returned to Eire in order to vote on the repeal of the Eighth Amendment. Looking at the pictures of returning émigrées, I have to say that the Flight of the Girls is an even more important event in Irish history as the Flight of the Earls (Smut Clyde informed me that this picture was actually taken at a pro "return to vote" performance art piece):

As an aside, I totally want to buy the girl in the glasses and the Ramones T-shirt a shot of Tullamore Dew. Gabba Gabba na Gael!

The Irish people voted overwhelmingly to repeal the Eight Amendment which criminalized abortion. Once again, the population of Ireland has voted overwhelmingly to pursue liberal reforms- the first being the legalization of same-sex marriage. I have a prediction that this liberal vote, in the overwhelmingly Catholic Republic of Ireland, will cause a lot of angst among the right-wingers here in the United States. The Catholic Church in Ireland has been guilty of running a gulag system for young women, complete with forced labor and mass graves- they had lost the moral authority to weigh in on the abortion issue. A lot of Americans view Ireland as some sort of Candyland, toora loora lorra and all that shit. They want Ireland to be trapped in amber, a faraway land inhabited by leprechauns or smurfs. The voters of Ireland, and the emigrant Irish community proved to the world that they are modern, progressive people, people devoted to women's and minority rights.

This being a post about matters Irish, I would be remiss if I didn't post a song... the most appropriate one for this occasion is the haunting The Innocent and the Honest Ones by In Tua Nua:

That song was released thirty years ago- the Tuath na Gael have come a long way in the intervening years.

Saturday, May 26, 2018

The Fifth Anniversary of Jack Vance's Death

The reason why I decided to post about beloved Science Fiction and Fantasy author Jack Vance all week is the occasion of the fifth anniversary of his death. Vance was known for his baroque language, his spirited dialogue (often between characters trying to scam each other), and his unparalleled ability to invent weird planets and weirder societies... seriously, Jack Vance could throw up a dozen interesting planets in the course of a single novel. Jack Vance was also one of the major influences on Gary Gygax's Dungeons and Dragons, with Vancian Magic being the preferred model for dweomercrafting, rather than a more traditional sympathetic magic approach. In his 'Dying Earth' story cycle, written while he was serving in the Merchant Marine during the Second World War and published in 1950, the wizards who haunt the moribund Earth are forced to commit discrete spells to memory with no knowledge of the dangers they may be facing. The tale Mazirian the Magician perfectly illustrates the trope:

The Magician climbed the stairs. Midnight found him in his study, poring through leather-bound tomes and untidy portfolios ... At one time a thousand or more runes, spells, incantations, curses and sorceries had been known. The reach of Grand Motholam—Ascolais, the Ide of Kauchique, Almery to the South, the Land of the Falling Wall to the East—swarmed with sorcerers of every description, of whom the chief was the Arch-Necromancer Phandaal. A hundred spells Phandaal personally had formulated—though rumor said that demons whispered at his ear when he wrought magic. Pontecilla the Pious, then ruler of Grand Motholam, put Phandaal to torment, and after a terrible night, he killed Phandaal and outlawed sorcery throughout the land. The wizards of Grand Motholam fled like beetles under a strong light; the lore was dispersed and forgotten, until now, at this dim time, with the sun dark, wilderness obscuring Ascolais, and the white city Kaiin half in ruins, only a few more than a hundred spells remained to the knowledge of man. Of these, Mazirian had access to seventy-three, and gradually, by stratagem and negotiation, was securing the others.

Mazirian made a selection from his books and with great effort forced five spells upon his brain: Phandaal's Gyrator, Felojun's Second Hypnotic Spell, The Excellent Prismatic Spray, The Charm of Untiring Nourishment, and the Spell of the Omnipotent Sphere. This accomplished, Mazirian drank wine and retired to his couch.

Similarly, from the story Turjan of Miir in the same collection:

As he sat gazing across the darkening land, memory took Turjan to a night of years before, when the Sage had stood beside him.

"In ages gone," the Sage had said, his eyes fixed on a low star, "a thousand spells were known to sorcery and the wizards effected their wills. Today, as Earth dies, a hundred spells remain to man's knowledge, and these have come to us through the ancient books ... But there is one called Pandelume, who knows all the spells, all the incantations, cantraps, runes, and thaumaturgies that have ever wrenched and molded space .. ." He had fallen silent, lost in his thoughts.

"Where is this Pandelume?" Turjan had asked presently.

"He dwells in the land of Embelyon," the Sage had replied, "but where this land lies, no one knows."

"How does one find Pandelume, then?"

The Sage had smiled faintly. "If it were ever necessary, a spell exists to take one there."

Both had been silent a moment; then the Sage had spoken, staring out over the forest

"One may ask anything of Pandelume, and Pandelume will answer—provided that the seeker performs the service Pandelume requires. And Pandelume drives a hard bargain."

Then the Sage had shown Turjan the spell in question, which he had discovered in an ancient portfolio, and kept secret from all the world.

Turjan, remembering this conversation, descended to his study, a long low hall with stone walls and a stone floor deadened by a thick russet rug. The tomes which held Turjan's sorcery lay on the long table of black steel or were thrust helter-skelter into shelves. These were volumes compiled by many wizards of the past, untidy folios collected by the Sage, leather-bound librams setting forth the syllables of a hundred powerful spells, so cogent that Turjan's brain could know but four at a time.

Turjan found a musty portfolio, turned the heavy pages to the spell the Sage had shown him, the Call to the Violent Cloud. He stared down at the characters and they burned with an urgent power, pressing off the page as if frantic to leave the dark solitude of the book.

Turjan closed the book, forcing the spell back into oblivion. He robed himself with a short blue cape, tucked a blade into his belt, fitted the amulet holding Laccodel's Rune to his wrist. Then he sat down and from a journal chose the spells he would take with him. What dangers he might meet he could not know, so he selected three spells of general application: the Excellent Prismatic Spray, Phandaal's Mantle of Stealth, and the Spell of the Slow Hour.

While there are no statistics out there, it's probably that reading Jack Vance in high school would add two hundred points to a test taker's SAT verbal score. It's the language which ultimately draws fans to Jack Vance's work- the worlds are beautifully detailed, the dialogue sprightly and droll, the characters (whether noble or despicable, and Vance has written some incredible villains and antiheroes) memorable, even if some of his more competent, heroic protagonists tend to blend together a bit. Vance provided the perfect escapism- his satirical content was applied with a light touch, his plots were often secondary to the sheer wall of glorious purple prose. He's been five years gone, but he'll be a part of my dreamscape for the rest of my life... and for that I will be forever grateful.

Friday, May 25, 2018

It's a Miracle, a Vancian Miracle!

Tomorrow being the fifth anniversary of the death of Science Fiction/Fantasy grandmaster Jack Vance, I figured that I would make this week Jack Vance Week- all Jack Vance, all week.

If one were to force me to pick a favorite work of fiction by Jack Vance, I would eventually have to conclude that

The Miracle Workers, a novella originally published in the July 1958 issue of Astounding Science Fiction, an illustration of one of the book's 'jinxmen' is a real beaut:

The electrical diagrams on the vestments of the jinxman are a particularly nice touch! I first encountered the story in the a library copy of the hardcover edition of the 1969 compilation Eight Fantasms and Magics, which I found in paperback at a library booksale years later.

I disagree with this review, being of the opinion that The Miracle Workers is better than The Dragon Masters and The Last Castle- the protagonist is a more genuinely (HEH) character, an amiable misfit who challenges a society which has stagnated to the point of peril, possible extinction. Like the societies depicted in the later The Dragon Masters and The Last Castle, the human society of The Miracle Workers' planet Pangborn is descended from spacefarers defeated in an interstellar war and taking refuge on a planet inhabited by insectlike autochthones, who they promptly began to slaughter:

Sixteen hundred years before, with war raging through space, a group of space captains, their home bases destroyed, had taken refuge on Pangborn. To protect themselves against vengeful enemies, they built great forts armed with weapons from the dismantled spaceships.

The wars receded, Pangborn was forgotten. The newcomers drove the First Folk into the forests, planted and harvested the river valleys. Ballant Keep, like Faide Keep, Castle Cloud, Boghoten, and the rest, overlooked one of these valleys. Four squat towers of a dense black substance supported an enormous parasol roof, and were joined by walls two-thirds as high as the towers. At the peak of the roof a cupola housed Volcano, the weapon corresponding to Faide’s Hellmouth.


During the first centuries of human settlement, sportive young men had hunted the First Folk with clubs and lances, eventually had driven them from their native downs into the forests.

In the intervening centuries, the humans of Pangborn descended into superstition and medievalism, with the voodoo-esque 'jinxmanship' replacing empiricism. The ancient 'miracle workers' are seen as superstitious sorcerors:

Peculiar, these ancient men! thought Lord Faide: at once so clever, yet so primitive and impractical. Conditions had changed; there had been enormous advances since the dark ages sixteen hundred years ago. For instance, the ancients had used intricate fetishes of metal and glass to communicate with each other. Lord Faide need merely voice his needs; Hein Huss could project his mind a hundred miles to see, to hear, to relay Lord Faide’s words. The ancients had contrived dozens of such objects, but the old magic had worn away and they never seemed to function.

The action of the novella begins as one of the planet's feudal rulers, Lord Faide, is consolidating his power over the other keep lords. The military action between human armies depends on the use of mannikins to induce pain or terror into enemies and the use of 'demons' (the 'rights' to which can be traded between jinxmen) to possess soldiers in order to confer to them superhuman ferocity, agility, or vitality:

“Listen then. What happens when I hoodoo a man? First I must enter into his mind telepathically. There are three operational levels: the conscious, the unconscious, the cellular. The most effective jinxing is done if all three levels are influenced. I feel into my victim, I learn as much as possible, supplementing my previous knowledge of him, which is part of my stock in trade. I take up his doll, which carries his traces. The doll is highly useful but not indispensable. It serves as a focus for my attention; it acts as a pattern, or a guide, as I fix upon the mind of the victim, and he is bound by his own telepathic capacity to the doll which bears his traces.

“So! Now! Man and doll are identified in my mind, and at one or more levels in the victim’s mind. Whatever happens to the doll the victim feels to be happening to himself. There is no more to simple hoodooing than that, from the standpoint of the jinxman. But naturally the victims differ greatly. Susceptibility is the key idea here. Some men are more susceptible than others. Fear and conviction breed susceptibility. As a jinxman succeeds he becomes ever more feared, and consequently the more efficacious he becomes. The process is self-generative.

“Demon-possession is a similar technique. Susceptibility is again essential; again conviction creates susceptibility. It is easiest and most dramatic when the characteristics of the demon are well known, as in the case of Comandore’s Keyril. For this reason, demons can be exchanged or traded among jinxmen. The commodity actually traded is public acceptance and familiarity with the demon.”

“Demons then do not actually exist?” inquired Lord Faide half-incredulously.

Hein Huss grinned vastly, showing enormous yellow teeth. “Telepathy works through a superstratum. Who knows what is created in this superstratum? Maybe the demons live on after they have been conceived; maybe they now are real. This of course is speculation, which we jinxmen shun.

“So much for demons, so much for the lesser techniques of jinxmanship. I have explained sufficient to serve as background to the present situation.”

The opening scene involves a war party from Faide Keep encountering a trap-filled forest planting created by the planet's natives... to locate the traps in the planting, the novella's protagonist, bumbling apprentice jinxman Sam Salazar (my favorite Vance character), is considered the most expendable person, and tasked to prod the perilous planting in order to ensure the safety of head jinxman Hein Huss... leading to some of Vance's trademark brilliant dialogue:

“Send someone to speak to the First Folk. Inform them we wish to pass, offering them no harm, but that we will react savagely to any hostility.”

“I will go myself,” said Hein Huss. He turned to Comandore, “Lend me, if you will, your brash young apprentice. I can put him to good use.”

“If he unmasks a nettle trap by blundering into it, his first useful deed will be done,” said Comandore. He signaled to Sam Salazar, who came reluctantly forward. “Walk in front of Head Jinxman Hein Huss that he may encounter no traps or scythes. Take a staff to probe the moss.”

Without enthusiasm Sam Salazar borrowed a lance from one of the foot soldiers. He and Huss set forth, along the low rise that previously had separated North from South Wildwood. Occasionally outcroppings of stone penetrated the cover of moss; here and there grew bayberry trees, clumps of tarplant, ginger-tea, and rosewort.

A half mile from the planting Huss halted. “Now take care, for here the traps will begin. Walk clear of hummocks, these often conceal swing-scythes; avoid moss which shows a pale blue; it is dying or sickly and may cover a deadfall or a nettle trap.”
“Why cannot you locate the traps by clairvoyance?” asked Sam Salazar in a rather sullen voice. “It appears an excellent occasion for the use of these faculties.”

“The question is natural,” said Hein Huss with composure. “However you must know that when a jinxman’s own profit or security is at stake his emotions play tricks on him. I would see traps everywhere and would never know whether clairvoyance or fear prompted me. In this case, that lance is a more reliable instrument than my mind.”

Sam Salazar made a salute of understanding and set forth, with Hein Huss stumping behind him. At first he prodded with care, uncovering two traps, then advanced more jauntily; so swiftly indeed that Huss called out in exasperation, “Caution, unless you court death!”

Sam Salazar obligingly slowed his pace. “There are traps all around us, but I detect the pattern, or so I believe.”

“Ah, ha, you do? Reveal it to me, if you will. I am only Head Jinxman, and ignorant.”

“Notice. If we walk where the spore-pods have recently been harvested, then we are secure.”

Hein Huss grunted. “Forward then. Why do you dally? We must do battle at Ballant Keep today.”

Two hundred yards farther, Sam Salazar stopped short. “Go on, boy, go on!” grumbled Hein Huss.

“The savages threaten us. You can see them just inside the planting. They hold tubes which they point toward us.”
Hein Huss peered, then raised his head and called out in the sibilant language of the First Folk.

A moment or two passed, then one of the creatures came forth, a naked humanoid figure, ugly as a demonmask. Foam-sacs bulged under its arms, orange-lipped foam-vents pointed forward. Its back was wrinkled and loose, the skin serving as a bellows to blow air through the foam-sacs. The fingers of the enormous hands ended in chisel-shaped blades, the head was sheathed in chitin. Billion-faceted eyes swelled from either side of the head, glowing like black opals, merging without definite limit into the chitin. This was a representative of the original inhabitants of the planet, who until the coming of man had inhabited the downs, burrowing in the moss, protecting themselves behind masses of foam exuded from the underarm sacs.

The creature wandered close, halted. “I speak for Lord Faide of Faide Keep,” said Huss. “Your planting bars his way. He wishes that you guide him through, so that his men do not damage the trees, or spring the traps you have set against your enemies.”

“Men are our enemies,” responded the autochthon. “You may spring as many traps as you care to; that is their purpose.” It backed away.

“One moment,” said Hein Huss sternly. “Lord Faide must pass. He goes to battle Lord Ballant. He does not wish to battle the First Folk. Therefore it is wise to guide him across the planting without hindrance.”

The creature considered a second or two. “I will guide him.” He stalked across the moss toward the war party.
Behind followed Hein Huss and Sam Salazar. The autochthon, legs articulated more flexibly than a man’s, seemed to weave and wander, occasionally pausing to study the ground ahead.

“I am puzzled,” Sam Salazar told Hein Huss. “I cannot understand the creature’s actions.”

“Small wonder,” grunted Hein Huss. “He is one of the First Folk, you are human. There is no basis for understanding.”

“I disagree,” said Sam Salazar seriously.

“Eh?” Hein Huss inspected the apprentice with vast disapproval. “You engage in contention with me, Head Jinxman Hein Huss?”

“Only in a limited sense,” said Sam Salazar. “I see a basis for understanding with the First Folk in our common ambition to survive.”

“A truism,” grumbled Hein Huss. “Granting this community of interests with the First Folk, what is your perplexity?”
“The fact that it first refused, then agreed to conduct us across the planting.”

Hein Huss nodded. “Evidently the information which intervened, that we go to fight at Ballant Keep, occasioned the change.”
“This is clear,” said Sam Salazar. “But think—”

“You exhort me to think?” roared Hein Huss.

“—here is one of the First Folk, apparently without distinction, who makes an important decision instantly. Is he one of their leaders? Do they live in anarchy?”

“It is easy to put questions,” Hein Huss said gruffly. “It is not as easy to answer them.”

“In short—”

“In short, I do not know. In any event, they are pleased to see us killing one another.”

Subsequently, the humans come into conflict with the natives, who have developed biological weapons:

“Notice, they carry tubes,” said Scolford.

“Blowguns possibly,” suggested Edwin.

Scolford disagreed. “They cannot blow through their foam-vents.”

“No doubt we shall soon learn,” said Lord Faide. He rose in his seat, called to the rear. “Ready with the darts!”

The soldiers raised their crossbows. The column advanced slowly, now only a hundred yards from the planting. The white shapes of the First Folk moved uneasily at the forest’s edges. Several of them raised their tubes, seemed to sight along the length. They twitched their great hands.

One of the tubes was pointed toward Lord Faide. He saw a small black object leave the opening, flit forward, gathering speed. He heard a hum, waxing to a rasping, clicking flutter. He ducked behind the windscreen; the projectile swooped in pursuit, struck the windscreen like a thrown stone. It fell crippled upon the forward deck of the car—a heavy black insect like a wasp, its broken proboscis oozing ocher liquid, horny wings beating feebly, eyes like dumbbells fixed on Lord Faide. With his mailed fist, he crushed the creature.

Behind him other wasps struck knights and men; Corex Faide-Battaro took the prong through his visor into the eye, but the armor of the other knights defeated the wasps. The foot soldiers, however, lacked protection; the wasps half buried themselves in flesh. The soldiers called out in pain, clawed away the wasps, squeezed the wounds. Corex Faide-Battaro toppled from his horse, ran blindly out over the heath, and after fifty feet fell into a trap. The stricken soldiers began to twitch, then fell on the moss, thrashed, leaped up to run with flapping arms, threw themselves in wild somersaults, forward, backward, foaming and thrashing.

It is later revealed that the natives have adopted the methods of the ancient human 'miracle workers' to defeat their human enemies:

"‘There are always more in the cells to replace the elements which die. But if the community becomes sick, all suffer. We have been forced into the forests, into a strange existence. We must arm ourselves and drive away the men, and to this end we have developed the methods of men to our own purposes!’

“Isak Comandore spoke. “Needless to say, the creature referred to the ancient men, not ourselves.”

“In any event,” said Lord Faide, “they leave no doubt as to their intentions. We should be fools not to attack them at once, with every weapon at our disposal.”

Hein Huss continued imperturbably. “The creature went on at some length. ‘We have learned the value of irrationality.’ ‘Irrationality’ of course was not his word or even his meaning. He said something like ‘a series of vaguely motivated trials’—as close as I can translate. He said, ‘We have learned to change our environment. We use insects and trees and plants and waterslugs. It is an enormous effort for us who would prefer a placid life in the moss. But you men have forced this life on us, and now you must suffer the consequences.’ I pointed out once more that men were not helpless, that many First Folk would die. The creature seemed unworried. ‘The community persists.’ I asked a delicate question, ‘If your purpose is to kill men, why do you allow us here?’ He said, ‘The entire community of men will be destroyed.’ Apparently they believe the human society to be similar to their own, and therefore regard the killing of three wayfaring individuals as pointless effort.”

Realizing that the natives have developed heretofore unknown military prowess, Hein Huss, his chief rival Isak Comandore, and Sam Salazar travel to one of the First Folk's safe Forest Markets in order to determine if a counter to the natives' techniques can be developed via jinxmanship. Once again, Sam Salazar proves to be the most awesome character in Vance's oeuvre:

Isak Comandore, nominal head of the expedition, spoke. “We rode along the river bank to Forest Market. Here was no sign of disorder or of hostility. A hundred First Folk traded timber, planks, posts, and poles for knife blades, iron wire, and copper pots. When they returned to their barge we followed them aboard, wagon, horses, and all. They showed no surprise—”
“Surprise,” said Hein Huss heavily, “is an emotion of which they have no knowledge.”

Isak Comandore glared briefly. “We spoke to the barge-tenders, explaining that we wished to visit the interior of Wildwood. We asked if the First Folk would try to kill us to prevent us from entering the forest. They professed indifference as to either our well-being or our destruction. This was by no means a guarantee of safe conduct; however, we accepted it as such, and remained aboard the barge.” He spoke on with occasional emendations from Hein Huss.
They had proceeded up the river, into the forest, the First Folk poling against the slow current. Presently they put away the poles; nevertheless the barge moved as before. The mystified jinxmen discussed the possibility of teleportation, or symboligical force, and wondered if the First Folk had developed jinxing techniques unknown to men. Sam Salazar, however, noticed that four enormous water beetles, each twelve feet long with oil-black carapaces and blunt heads, had risen from the river bed and pushed the barge from behind—apparently without direction or command.

The plot of the story reaches an inevitable climax as humans and natives wage war. The denouement of the novella is particularly satisfying, but you'll have to read it yourself... I've already cut-and-pasted too much of the novella into this blog post. If you are a fan of Science Fantasy, I would urge you to purchase the ebook. It's a great introduction to Jack Vance, mixing swashbuckling action, evocation of a sense of wonder, A celebration of the scientific method, and sidesplitting humor. You'll thank me.

Thursday, May 24, 2018

Vance's Hugo and Nebula Awards

In keeping with this being Jack Vance week, this coming Saturday being the 5th anniversary of Jack's passing, I figured I would comment on some of Jack's award winning writings. He won the 1962 Best Short Fiction Hugo for The Dragon Masters and 1967 Best Novella/Novelette Hugo and Nebula awards for The Last Castle. These two works are related thematically- they both concern human populations which have enslaved intelligent alien species and bred them for various tasks, such as waging war or providing transportation.

The Dragon Masters was originally published in the August 1962 edition of Galaxy magazine. Besides being a typical 'planetary romance', the long short story can be interpreted as an allegory of the arms race. The plot of the story concerns an isolated population of humans, stranded on a distant planet in the aftermath of an interstellar war and unsure of the current status of the bulk of humanity:

“You know the legends as well as I, perhaps better. Our people came to Aerlith as exiles during the War of the Ten Stars. The Nightmare Coalition apparently had defeated the Old Rule, but how the war ended—” he threw up his hands — “who can say?”


Carcolo sidled close, prodded Joaz with his forefinger.“We know nothing of the outer worlds. We are marooned on this miserable planet of stone and wind while life passes us by. You assume that Basics rule the cluster. But suppose you are wrong? Suppose the Old Rule has returned? Think of the rich cities,the gay resorts, the palaces, the pleasure-islands! Look up into the night sky. Ponder the bounties which might be ours! You ask how can we implement these desires? I respond, the process maybe so simple that the sacerdotes will reveal it without reluctance.”“You mean —?”

“Communication with the worlds of men! Deliverance from this lonely little world at the edge of the universe!”

Joaz Banbeck nodded dubiously. “A fine vision. But the evidence suggests a situation far different, namely the destruction of man and the Human Empire.”

Separated from the bulk of humanity, the population has stagnated, devolving to feudal societies using technologies from the early age of gunpowder. In their vulnerable state, they are subject to periodic invasions by slave-taking reptilian aliens who breed their human captives to fill various martial capacities. One such invasion goes awry due to the vicissitudes of the planet's weather, and an ancestor of the tale's protagonist manages to capture some of the aliens. Vance denies moral superiority to his human protagonists- they subject their captives, dubbed Basics, to the same enslavement and genetic manipulation that the aliens are guilty of- breeding them into the dragons of the title: Termagants, Blue Horrors, Long Horned Murderers, Striding Murderers, Fiends, Juggers, and Spiders.

In the course of the story, the Basics, accompanied by their human cannon fodder, stage their periodic invasion of the planet:

“Look you,these Basics are neither ghouls nor angels of death. They are no more than pallid Termagants, the basic stock of our dragons."


Phade stared at the queer pale shapes who had come tentatively out on the ramp. “They seemstrange and twisted, like silverpuzzles for children.”

“They are the Basics. From their eggs came our dragons.They have done as well with men: look, here are their Heavy Troops.”

Down the ramp, four abreast,in exact cadence, marched the Heavy Troops, to halt fifty yards in front of the ship. There were three squads of twenty: short squat men with massive shoulders, thick necks and stern, down-drawn faces. They wore armor fashioned from overlapping scales of black and blue metal,a wide belt slung with pistol and sword. Black epaulets, extending past their shoulders, supported a short ceremonial flap of black cloth ranging down their backs.Their helmets bore a crest of sharp spikes. Their knee-high boots were armed with kick-knives.

A number of Basics now rode forth. Their mounts were creatures only remotely resembling men. They ran on hands and feet, backs high off the ground. Their heads were long and hairless, with quivering loose lips.

In the ensuing battle, the protagonist uses broken terrain and his specially-bred dragons to counter the aliens' technological advantages. There is also a wild-card... a secretive human population living in caverns under the planet's surface, espousing a doctrine of non-interference and a prophecy of a resurgence after their 'inferiors' on the surface are utterly defeated. The tide of battle is ultimately determined by sheer numbers of cannon fodder, as the dragons can be bred in larger numbers and greater variety:

“Only two dozen? Perhaps they are hard to breed. Generations pass slowly with men; dragons lay a clutch of eggs every year."

There is also a timely intervention by combatants wielding what boils down to a wave motion gun.

Rereading The Dragon Masters, I noticed that it is less flowery than much of Vance's other works. The adjective use is almost restrained, the dialogue not as baroque as that in other Vance novels. It's a quick read, and the satirical/allegorical content sneaks up on the readers while they are occupied with a bunch of kaiju battles.

The Last Castle concerns a population of aristocrats who have forgotten how to work because they have delegated all of their tasks to various alien species, particularly the vaguely anthropoid Meks:

A specimen in a museum case,was a man-like creature native,in his original version, to a planet of Etamin. His tough rusty-bronze hide glistened metallically as if oiled or waxed. The spines thrusting back from scalp and neck shone like gold, and indeed they were coated with a conductive copper-chrome film. His sense organs were gathered in clusters at the site of a man’s ears; his visage—it was often a shock, walking the lower corridors, to come suddenly upon a Mek—was corrugated muscle,not dissimilar to the look of an uncovered human brain. His maw, a vertical irregular cleft at the base of this “face’, was an obsolete organ by reason of the syrup sac which had been introduced under the skin of the shoulders, and the digestive organs, originally used to extract nutrition from decayed swamp vegetation and coelenterates,had atrophied. The Mek typically wore no garment except possibly a work apron or a tool-belt,and in the sunlight his rust-bronze skin made a handsome display. This was the Mek solitary, a creature intrinsically as effective as man—perhaps more by virtue of his superb brain which also functioned as a radio transceiver. Working in the mass,by the teeming thousands, he seemed less admirable, less competent: a hybrid of sub-man and cockroach.

It is this contempt for the Meks that leads to the downfall of their aristocratic masters, and Vance's human characters echo some of the horrendous arguments that current apologists for slavery try to employ:

In spite of such research, theMek revolt came as an utter sur-prise, no less to Claghom, D. R.Jardine and Salonson than toanyone else. Why? asked every-one. How could a group so longsubmissive have contrived somurderous a plot?

The most reasonable conjecture was also the simplest: the Mek resented servitude and hated the Earthmen who had removed him from his natural environment. Those who argued against this theory claimed that it projected human emotions and attitudes into a non-human organism, that the Mek had every reason to feel gratitude toward the gentlemen who had liberated him from the conditions of Etamin Nine.

One hears this kind of bullshit a lot from right-wing types...

The plot involves the defense of the last human stronghold against the revolt of their specially bred alien slaves, which even include their 'cars':

Power-wagons, like the Meks, were originally swamp-creatures from Etamin 9. They were great rectangular slabs of muscle, slung into a rectangular frame and protected from sunlight, insects and rodents by a synthetic pelt. Syrup sacs communicated with their digestive apparatus, wires led to motor nodes in the rudimentary brain. The muscles were clamped to rocker arms which actuated rotors and drive-wheels. The power-wagons were economical, long-lived and docile, and so they were principally used for heavy cartage earth-moving, heavy-tillage, and other arduous jobs.

Both The Dragon Masters and The Last Castle are thematically similar to perhaps my favorite Jack Vance work, 1958's The Miracle Workers, which also involves a regressed, isolated human population coping with an insurgency of the natives of the planet they have colonized. I find The Miracle Workers to be a superior story, though, having a fantastic protagonist and some entertaining secondary characters. The human characters in The Dragon Masters and The Last Castle are pretty despicable people, their careers of evil making their struggles for survival less urgent to this reader. I think I'll tackle The Miracle Workers in tomorrow's post- the theme of employing empiricism to pursue one's goals is particularly appealing to me.